How to choose the right flour for bread baking?

Have you ever wondered how the quality of flour is influencing bread baking?

Let’s find out how to choose the right flour for the type of bread you want to bake.

This post is not about a recipe but about an ingredient.

The flour has the biggest proportion in a loaf and is the most important ingredient as it provides structure to the dough. Baking bread with the wrong flour can be frustrating, but if you understand its characteristics, you can choose the appropriate method, so in the end, you get a gorgeous loaf.

I put together a lot of information about the flour with the way is influencing the dough for bread baking in a new video on my youtube Hungry Shots channel. I hope this comes to clarify many of the flour mysteries.

What is flour? 

Flour comes from wheat berries. Wheat spikes hold the wheat berries. If you press a wheat spike with your fingers, you’ll notice that the wheat berries are popping out from the spikelets. If you blow away the chaff, the grains remain. 

Each wheat berry has 3 parts: 

  • The endosperm (83%) is the biggest part and contains starch granules, iron, B vitamins
  • The Bran (14.5%) - is the outer layer that contains fibres, proteins, B vitamins and trace minerals
  • The Germ (2.5%) - is the embryo of the seed, contains lipids, B vitamins and minerals

Flour is obtained through the reduction of the wheat berries into smaller particles. 
Through simple milling, we obtain what it is called whole wheat / wholemeal flour that includes all the 3 elements of a wheat berry.
To arrive at a white flour, the germ and the bran has to be removed through a sifting process.
With them, fibres, vitamins and minerals also go away. 
After milling, the white flour needs to age for at least a month in order to acquire good baking properties. Freshly milled flour, called green/immature flour,  will produce dough with poor elasticity that will result in bread with poor volume, thick crust and dense crumb texture. Through the ageing process, the flour gets oxidised due to the exposure to oxygen and its baking properties are improved.
However, if you mill the flour at home you can benefit from higher nutritional content and better flavour even though the elasticity of the dough is reduced.

Flour characteristics
When you choose a new flour, it is better that you look for certain characteristics. Unfortunately, not all these details you can obtain by just looking at the label on the package but understanding their importance can help you in the baking process. I’ll reveal to you these tricks further on. 
Even more, if you buy from a local farm you might not have access to many of these details and the only remaining option is to test the flour yourself. But generally, choosing organic flour has greater health benefits.

The protein content is probably the most important aspect to consider when you chose the flour to bake bread.
The higher the protein content of the flour, the higher performance of the bread. The percentage of protein content is usually marked on the package label. 

Based on the protein content, we can distinguish 3 categories of flour:
  • Cake flour or pastry flour is usually the lowest in protein content (7-9%) because, for cakes, gluten development is not a purpose. 
  • Then it comes, all-purpose flour (9-11%) who usually has a moderate protein content. 
  • On top is the bread and pizza flour (11-14%+) with the most protein percentage. 
In fact, there is no clear threshold between these categories and they may differ from producer to producer or from country to country. This means that you can easily find flour labelled as “bread flour” having 10% or 14% protein content. The best is to always look on the back of the package and spot the percentage of the protein content.

The protein content is directly linked with gluten. When flour is mixed with water, the gluten is formed. Gluten’s main function in baking bread is to strengthen your dough. Low protein content means weak gluten that results in a smaller volume of your dough due to the lack of structure.
Gluten, through its main 2 components (gliadin and glutenin) provide extensibility and elasticity to the dough. 
To measure this, some of the flour producers indicate values like P, L and W on the package. Let’s quickly see what they mean:
  • P - resistance of the dough to deformation
  • L - extensibility of the dough
  • a P/L index indicates the behaviour of the gluten...
  • W - [45 to 400] indicates the strength of the flour. The higher the W factor, the strongest the flour, so the better is for baking bread. While the protein content indicates you the quantity of gluten, the W index (although in direct relation with the protein content)  gives you more insides about the quality of the gluten. This means that the higher the W index, the more water absorbent the flour is.
Also the higher the protein content, the longer mixing time is needed to achieve dough consistency.

The protein content is a characteristic of flour that the baker can play with. An experienced baker can produce a beautiful bread even from a low protein flour applying advanced baking techniques. But using a basic method to 2 wheat flours may result in loaves that look drastically different.
I give you a trick: if your flour lacks gluten, you may add commercial gluten to improve its baking properties.

In the past, very white bread was associated with quality food while darker bread was seen as food for poors. Ironically, from a health perspective is exactly the opposite.
Naturally, flour has an off-white colour due to the presence of bran particles and the existence of carotenoids pigments.
A bright white colour of the flour is due to ageing or bleaching:
  • Ageing: With time, the colour of the flour fades away due to the exposure to oxygen. Aged flour also comes with consistency in making bread.
  • Bleaching: Bleaching solved the problem of the flour millers who needed to store their flour for at least a month to age naturally because proper storage costs money. The process consists in treating the flour with chemical agents, also called dough conditioners. Bleaching affects the colour by making the flour whiter in just a few days.
    But bleaching does more than just affect the colour:
    • It affects the texture by making it softer and finer
    • It affects the taste, making it slightly bitter
    • it affects the structure of proteins creating an easier to handle dough and 
    • It influences gluten development. 
So, of course, commercial bakers prefer a bleached flour as being more economical. 
Bleached flour works better for cakes, biscuits, cookies, pancakes/waffles or quick bread.

Moisture content
Moisture content is one of the characteristics rarely found on your package. If the moisture overpasses 16%, the flour is prone to naturally occurring organisms and may get an unpleasant taste or smell. Of course, the higher the moisture content the less water you need for the bread. That’s why the producers recommend storing your flour in a dry and aerated environment. This also means that the flour won’t give you consistent results if you store it in a humid pantry and you might need to add less water in your recipe due to high moisture content in the flour.

Ash content
The ash content refers to the mineral or inorganic material in the flour and indicates the purity of flour. It gives the degree of contamination of flour with bran and germ. In France, the ash content classifies the flours (a pure flour - T55 comes from 0.55% ash content while T150 (1.5%) is corresponding to the whole wheat flour. 
In Italy, 00 is the purest flour and 2 is the whole wheat). The purer the flour the less ash content indicator. While a more pure flour has great baking characteristics, one with more ash content has more minerals, so it is more healthy. The more ash content, the more water you’ll need to add in the dough.

The water absorption
The higher the protein content, the higher the water absorption of the flour. Adding gluten to the formula needs to come with an increased quantity of water.
The lower the moisture content, the higher water absorption.

A course flour will require less water as it has less damaged starch during the milling process.

There are many other indicators that producers may assess in the lab, but for a homebaker they are either inaccessible or more difficult to handle them.

What you need to understand is that even if you apply the exact same recipe and method from a book or from the web, the quality of the flour can be a big game changer.

In the end, when you chose a flour for bread baking, ask yourself the following:
For what purpose will you use the flour? If it is for artisan bread, pick a strong one (high W index) or with high protein content. 
What kind of bread crumb are you targeting? A very well raised loaf with an open crumb? Then go for higher protein content. But for a denser bread, medium strength flour may go as well.
Is the health aspect the main purpose for the bake? Then choose an organic whole wheat flour that contains also the minerals and vitamins from the bran and germ. You may also want to consider milling your own flour for an extra flavour, minerals and vitamins.



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